JAZZ AT THE LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH WYNTON MARSALIS, WEST AUSTRALIAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: WYNTON MARSALIS’ SWING SYMPHONY, review by Varun Ghosh
Performance March 3 2016, Perth International Arts Festival, Perth Concert Hall
During the seasonal wonder that is the Perth International Arts Festival, such talent descends upon Perth that it is easy to forget its geographical isolation. Yet the presence of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra of New York at the Perth Concert Hall still felt slightly surreal. I had secured a seat at late notice in the choir stalls, for what in hindsight seemed an ungracious sum, and I sat down almost directly behind the performers.
Jazz and concert halls are not obvious companions. Jazz is jelly and formal venues are palpably not. In my own mind, jazz is best set in downstairs cafes with uncomfortable seating and cheap beer. But Wynton Marsalis has spent his career fusing the jazz and classical styles, so neither the venue nor the inclusion of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra was surprising.
The program promised for the first part “Jazz standards announced from the stage.” The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra moved fluently through Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and others. They were at once confident and subtle. Familiar notes, neither too loud nor too soft, were played with relaxed precision and feeling. The pieces, introduced by Marsalis in the rich and gentle tones of New Orleans via New York, felt harmonious despite the different styles of the composers.
Yet it was in an elaborate and beautiful piece that Marsalis composed for the Abyssinia Baptist Church in New York that the craft of the performers became clearer. Elliot Mason handled a difficult trombone solo skilfully. Then Marsalis rose and played with such clarity and grace that he ascended to that higher plane that is captured in the phrase, ‘it is art to conceal art.’ In Italy, they might have called it sprezzatura.
Here the choir stalls were a bit of luck. From the unusual, elevated vantage point, it was possible to look over the maestro’s shoulder as he swayed and watch his fingers dance upon the valves of his unburnished trumpet with such speed that the precision of sound produced scarcely seemed believable. When Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone, turned around to watch Marsalis play, the expression on his face was one of wonderment and delight. What it must be to work in the company of an artist who produces such feeling.
After the intermission, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra joined the concert. Though fine musicians, their number dwarfed the visitors and could not but adulterate their sound. The music of the second part – entitled Symphony No. 3 Swing Symphony again by Marsalis – was a ranging piece. It began with martial percussion and soon invoked the full string complement. When all of the sections – woodwind, brass, strings, and percussion – played together, the sound was cacophonous. But just as it approached true unpleasantness, the strings, woodwind and percussion fell away and suddenly there was only the brass carrying a sweet tune theretofore camouflaged. The saxophones, given sway, would then turn the whole thing sad before being joined by the strings, who were most suitable accompaniments to melancholy.
Though the brass blows away from you, sitting behind the performers lends a sense of intimacy and, though surely misleading, it is possible to imagine that you are on the same team as the musicians looking out, as they do, on the audience. Closeness was the key. You could actually see Carlos Henriquez pluck the strings of his bass like a guitar and the trumpeters deploy their bowler hats daintily. In the little duets – trumpets and flutes – you could catch the exchange of glances between the principals. Then a fresh crescendo of the full swing orchestra would reappear thunderously.
The emotional range of the piece was quite extraordinary. Its fervour at times gave credence to the historic suspicion that jazz was a gateway to licentious behaviour and it was easy to see how this music could give structure and outlet to unspoken urges. For the listener, it was at once exhilarating and exhausting.
Yet, throughout it all, the drummer Ali Jackson was having such a richly good time that it was impossible to feel any burden. Jackson wore the intricacies of his work lightly and was never without a smile. The looks he shared with Marsalis were alone worth the price of admission – the amity of doing work they loved together, the mutual admiration, and the joy of play were all evident.
At the end, the audience would not stop clapping. The American visitors relented twice with old favourites and finished on ‘Summertime’ in blue light. As Marsalis left the stage for the last time, he idled by Dan Nimmer on the piano and they rubbed each other’s palms with their fingers in an affectionate handshake. “There’s kicks everywhere,” Louis Armstrong once told Murray Kempton in Basin Street in New Orleans. He was right. And the kicks were most definitely in Perth with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in town.